Utah's Catholics find unity in being a minority

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- When people talk about ''The Church'' in Utah, they're not talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholicism is America's largest denomination, but it's No. 2 in Utah and represents only about 9 percent of the state's residents, or roughly 200,000 people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims 70 percent of Utah's residents -- around 1.5 million people.

The sheer dominance of Mormonism in Utah -- where it's not just a religion, but a culture -- pushes Catholics together and has created a tightly knit minority.

''I'm amazed at the distances that people travel to attend Mass in rural areas,'' said Dee Rowland, the Salt Lake diocese's government liaison. ''I'm overwhelmed by the sacrifices parents make financially and in transportation complications to send their children to Catholic schools.''

Salt Lake Bishop George Niederauer, the Church's top official in Utah, says that being immersed in the Mormon culture causes people to look closely at their own faith.

''I think the atmosphere here encourages people to take religion seriously,'' he said. ''When people ask you what (Mormon) ward you belong to, that gets you thinking.''

The Mormon influence in Utah, where the Winter Olympics will be held next month, runs deep. The state was founded by the faith's pioneers in 1847, who had fled from persecution in the East. Today, it is the home of the Mormon church's world headquarters.

Salt Lake City is a place where a resident can come home, switch on the Mormon church-owned NBC affiliate and see commercials for the Mormon church-owned Deseret Books, which has a branch conveniently located downtown in the Mormon church-owned ZCMI mall across the street from the Mormon church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News.

This also is a place where drinking a cup of coffee in the morning or having a beer after work makes a clear statement about religious affiliation. The Mormon church prohibits members in good standing from smoking or drinking alcohol and hot caffeinated beverages.

A poll conducted last fall for The Salt Lake Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, found that more than two-thirds of Utah's residents perceive a social, cultural or political divide between those who are Mormon and those who are not.

In short: The rift can be obvious and divisive, even as leaders of different faiths push for tolerance.

''There's a tremendous challenge to being in the majority or the minority graciously,'' Niederauer said. ''We have to be careful about Mormon bashing. It can become a blood sport.''

Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley has made it a priority to build better relations between Mormons and non-Mormons, said spokesman Dale Bills. It's a message that Hinckley himself has reiterated many times.

''We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making. We can be more tolerant, more neighborly, more friendly, more of an example than we have been in the past,'' Hinckley said during the faith's semiannual General Conference in April 2000.

Leticia Medina, a Catholic and director of the State Office of Hispanic Affairs, has navigated the state's religious divide in her 20 years as a Utah resident.

When she first moved here from Los Angeles ''it was very difficult to even say I was Catholic because I was looked down upon,'' she said.

The mother of four daughters, Medina said she struggled with raising her girls in Utah. One dropped out of school at age 16, saying, '''I'm not the right color. I'm not the right religion.' It was too much pressure for her to deal with,'' Medina said.

Greg Schirf, a Catholic and owner of Wasatch Brewery, moved to Park City from Milwaukee in 1974. Utah's culture took some getting used to.

''I think what allowed me to survive is living in Park City,'' he said, describing the upscale ski town as a Catholic enclave.

To live in any other part of Utah ''would have been too overwhelming. The reason I did stay is the recreational and businesses opportunities. But there were some lonely times.''

There have been efforts made to bridge the religious divide.

Medina said her parish has made a point of working on social causes with churches of other faiths. The bishop sits on the newly created Alliance for Unity to promote more tolerance in the state, along with Mormon church leader Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

And Mormon leaders continue to implore the faithful to be more accepting of others.

At this fall's semiannual General Conference, Ballard told church members to practice tolerance and inclusion. He made a special point of addressing Mormons who live where they are in the majority.

If neighbors disagree with the Mormon church or the church's stance on an issue, ''Please don't suggest to them -- even in a humorous way -- that they should consider moving someplace else,'' Ballard said.


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